Clear Evidence To Stop Geotagging Specific Locations Of Your Nature Photographs On Social Media

I recently wrote an article asking photographers to stop tagging locations of outdoor photographs. Here's a follow-up to that piece, with a great supplemental video from Vox. 

After writing the initial article asking photographers to stop tagging specific locations on social media, I was honestly stunned while reading the comments. First, this isn't a new idea or proposal: Leave No Trace, a center for outdoor ethics, recently released social media guidelines as a framework for helping to protect the great outdoors. Additionally, there seemed to be about a 70/30 split of opinion within those who commented on the original article, the majority leaning toward the idea that this is a made-up issue and that not tagging locations won't do anything to help the issue of overcrowding and misuse of natural and public spaces. 

As landscape and nature photographers, I was honestly surprised that most people didn't view geotagging as an issue. With so many of us constantly outside photographing the natural world, I'm genuinely in awe that more people don't notice the effect we have on public lands. I was especially shocked that most people didn't see a correlation between posting locations on social media and the amount of people that subsequently visit said locations. 

One general consensus within the majority of people who disagreed was that myself and others who withhold specific locations on social media are elitists or even arrogant, entitled, or condescending. But this is far from the truth. As someone who has spent and spends more time in my life between the pines than on city streets, I feel an innate sense of duty to help protect the natural world, because it means so much to me. I've hiked for my entire life in the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York, and have worked on a professional trail crew for two summers in the very same park to help give back to the place that has given me so much. Further, I've traveled to many national parks and public lands in the United States, including but not limited to Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Great Smoky Mountains, the Rocky Mountains, and Acadia National Park. Throughout all of this, I've seen firsthand the effect we've had on the land in a rather short period of time.

I do realize and can understand why others are mad or annoyed at the idea of not having a location handed to them. Everyone should be able to visit a location and get the pictures they have in mind, especially places on public lands. All myself and others that share my mindset are asking is that we think twice before sharing exact locations because this can have detrimental impacts on the land and can forever negatively change and shape landscapes. Besides, in order to find a spot, many of us have had to pull out a map, do our own research, or just serendipitously stumble upon a location. Many of us also did not have the exact coordinates of the locations handed to us. 

This video created by Vox showing what happens when nature goes viral does a fantastic job explaining the negative effects that geotagging specific locations on social media can have. Vox uses Horseshoe Bend as its prime example, explaining how geotagging on social media has forever changed the visitor experience and the landscape at this particular location. Vox interviews locals at and near this location to get firsthand accounts of how the explosion in popularity due to social media geotagging has affected the landscape. 

trail-widening-leave-no-trace

Sometimes, the final destination isn't the only part misused. Here is an example of trail widening and erosion in the Adirondacks. The original trail is in the center. Educating others and sharing Leave No Trace principles, such as staying on marked trails, can help alleviate damage in the woods.

Another aspect to this video that is worth discussing is the fact that in order to compensate for an increasing number of visitors, the Park Service and city officials near Horseshoe Bend are planning to build a large parking lot and welcome center. They're also planning to build a new trail and safety railings to help protect the natural landscape. While the building of new trails and barriers is commendable, I wonder what the effect of this will be. If more people continue to visit the area, will the Park Service and other officials continue to build more parking spaces to accommodate these guests? Or will a permitting system appear? How many people and footprints can the land realistically handle? As a park official states in the video, this is a difficult balance. 

Being a photographer who shares work on Instagram and other social media platforms, I'm always conscious of the catch-22: how do we promote people to have their own outdoor experiences, which will hopefully lead them to become future stewards of the land, while also not loving natural and public places to death? Hence, Leave No Trace's social media guidelines. When I do post locations on Facebook, Instagram, or any number of online apps, I'm sure not to tag a specific location, but rather the park or state, if one at all. Further, I do my best to share Leave No Trace principles, such as packing in what you pack out, staying on a hiking trail, respecting wildlife, etc. It sounds like a miniscule effort and change, but just like if every individual person stopped throwing their one piece of trash on the ground, this change can have lasting consequences.

As Leave No Trace states: "social media, if used the right way, is a powerful tool that can motivate a nation of outdoor advocates to enthusiastically and collectively take care of the places we share and cherish." Please take a few minutes to watch this informative video that further explains why we shouldn't be geotagging our nature photographs. 

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Bill Peppas's picture

Thanks for geo-tagging Grand Canyon, Horseshoe Bend, Antelope Canyon, Baja Desert, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Acropolis, Lake Moraine, Matterhorn, because otherwise people wouldn't be able to find them :D

In case people don't get my sarcasm, I meant that famous locations are already known to most people and don't need you to geo-tag them to be able to find them.
Think Horseshoe Bend which is the location being "civilized" is an unknown location to the public ?
Really ?

Those places will be crowded no matter what.

"simpler" places like a nice vantage point in a forest not so well known might be "pure" and not frequently visited and most definitely not by masses of people, but even with geo-tagging it will still be "clear" of big crowds because of the hike to get there and the smaller motivation ( it's different compared to the "power" a well known landmark like the Eiffel Tower for example ).

The only thing people need to get accustomed to is DO NOT HARASS nature.
Leave no trace and behave.
No, a fireplace in a dense vegetation area is not a good idea, just don't.
We need to make people care about nature and at least not trash it with their left-overs and spray paint or carve their names or whatever.
This is what needs to be done.
Not trying to hide something that is easily figured out.

user-146450's picture

What i am shocked about is the amount of anger over this subject. Places being over ridden with people is a multi element problem. Photography has become extremely popular because generally cost of equipment is in the reach of a lot more people than ever before. The amount of groups, workshops has grown because professional photographers need them to make a living (and there is a lot more "professional photographers" doing this and then of course there is geo tagging. I do agree that there is a problem with droves of people turning up at iconic viewpoints i have had many disappointing experiences myself. Unfortunately i can see the writing on the wall in that fences, barriers will likely be placed at some of these places when more people get injured, spoiling the natural setting for everyone On the subject of geo tagging i would err on the side of taking it off we didnt used to have it and if u really wanted to find out where a place is u can easily find out with little research. However i dont think that doing so will have a big impact There r 8 billion people on the planet and many many areas of our everyday lives r impacted because of it. The damage and debris in parks i would say is more about the increase of people who hike. It is def harder to be alone anywhere outside at the weekends. Just be nice, that doesnt harm anyone.

user-146450's picture

Perhaps so but shooting mobias last year i went with one friend to find one group of 10 and another group of 5. Making it 17. Too many of us to get any good shot. I gave up, sat on the rocks and just enjoyed the moment.

user-146450's picture

I think u have debated this to death. The term of "Flogging a dead horse," spring to mind

user-146450's picture

Oh dear oh dear oh dear. How will i live this down lol

user-146450's picture

Multi element problem. But i would say that most technology companies and goverments dont think or care about the consequences when the technology hits the marketplace. And the parks have to share responsibility here. It makes the situation worse if they pave the roads, parking areas and put centers at these out of the way places. Leave them alone. I would also add though that organized photographic groups and workshops r also part of the problem, that this problem is not confined to the general punter with a cell phone.

Tim, a very bold opinion, I never thought about it. Truth, for me was strange to hear, that there is this kind of the problem. As a child I grew up near the city, at my grandfather's ranch and moved to the metropolis recently. I have always been raised so that nature is your most loyal ally and that it always gives you as much as you are willing to give it. Me and my colleagues at https://papercheap.co.uk once dealt with this issue. According to our observations, which were made on the basis of more than 10 thousand people we interviewed, it all depends on the people and the environment in which they are. If the whole society is set up to protect nature-the majority will follow this.

Tim Behuniak's picture

I agree. When looking at European and other countries that put a higher emphasis on nature and nature preservation, I see a clear correlation to the health of the land in that country. (Thinking Scotland and Iceland as two examples). I think that our nation and leaders could definitely do more to put nature and its health as a priority, but don't think that'll happen anytime soon, unfortunately. I think it's now in the hands of the general public to more highly-regard nature, its benefits, and beauty.

user-156929's picture

Here's a thought: don't post those super cool location photos on social media. I wouldn't accuse anyone in particular of this but it sounds a lot like, "Look how cool I am and all the cool places I go to" with only an after-thought of "Well, I didn't Geotag it!"

heikoknoll's picture

Actually I never quite got the point of Geotagging anyway. Why is it so important for folks to inform others as to their exact location? Propably the GPS function is just enabled and people leave it at that, but I also think it has more to do with trying to be authentic. "I was here and I can prove it because I got my GPS.". It would really suffice, as the author notes, to say like "I was in the Appalachians" or "I'm at Cedar ridge.".

Bill Metallinos's picture

The problem of how many people will entrance a Park e.x Zion Park, is on Parks Officers/Rangers/etc.
If they thing the park is overcrowded then they must set a max entranced per day.
-Horseshoe Bend belong to Navaho Nation, now Park service got their "power" there. They saw that there is a change of getting more money from there so they build it as a Park Service, sure also for protection but still there are lot of money... If they care truly about the nature they will put some limits to people / day.
-Also there must a separation, are we talking about the States are general in the World?
The States got many people on their Nature sites, unlikely Europe that most of people are going on the Cultural sites, USA got lot of National Parks. People are going to Horseshoe bend just like going onto Eiffel Tower or to Acropolis.
-Now, if I / We Geo-tag something here on Europe it's not going to be so Crowded cause there are lot of other places to go. What I'm trying to say, is that lot of States got their "Jules" in Nature and not in the Cities
-Yes, the States have to Protect their Nature, but still, it's a Tourist attraction. Perhaps it's time for US to get a Ministry of Tourism under the Ministry of Environment.

Maximilian Sulzer's picture

On Top of not regulating the visitors count the National Park pass or whatever it was called is ridiculously cheap.
I mean 80$ for a year for all parks? And that's not even per person but per car. Make it double or triple that for tourists and they will still come, with the extra money going into the protection of the parks.

Edit: The geo-tag /location hype is a problem outside of the USA too. Just look at Iceland that gets completely overrun by tourists. Or sites like the Dolomites where you don't need an alarm clock cause you will be woken up by the sound of a dozen starting drones at sunrise.

Bill Metallinos's picture

Yeah, Iceland also got some problems. But it's up to them, to keep the crowed in or out of the site of interest.
The place is already recognizable, just like Easter Island, Machu Picchu, Chichen itza etc.
The world is just getting smaller, and it has been photograph almost everywhere.
That's not going to change!
-If they would like to same the Nature they must put some limits to people per day, and they must rise up the price of the entrance. 30$-40$ per Person, per entrance, per Park is ok. The annual ticket could be 180$ per person. Yes, 80$ is way to small!
Also they must set a Photographer price ticket. Anyone with tripod or any Pro Equipment should pay much more money to enter in those areas. e.x double price.
-For me it's not the Geo tag that killing the place, is the Cheap price, or the free entrance to get there.

Maximilian Sulzer's picture

"Also they must set a Photographer price ticket. Anyone with tripod or any Pro Equipment should pay much more money to enter in those areas. e.x double price."

That's a big grey area for me.
Please define "pro equipment" - In Dubai i was stopped from taking pictures because i have "pro equipment" several times, using a D5500 with a Travel zoom lens (no tripod). While other people happily snap away all they want with their phones (even using flash in museums).
I carry a tripod because i value the advantages it provides me, but i'm far away from getting any profit out of that.

Why do you feel like a Photographer causes more harm than a selfie tourist?
In the video linked there is not a single person that would fall under that rule. You can also check my comment on the bottom of the page regarding that.

user-176692's picture

I ran a wildlife photography group on Facebook. It had over 11k members. I made what I thought was an ethical decision - a rule about not listing a location of any kind, regardless of how vague. I was stunned by the hostility against this rule. A lot of people supported the rule. A much larger percentage hated the rule,and were quite outspoken, publicly and privately. I ultimately shut down the group. I'm still stunned by the hostility about a rule designed to protect the wildlife that we love. I absolutely support removing GPS tags from landscape images. Fight the good fight.

Tim Behuniak's picture

Wow, that's incredible. I'm honestly surprised each day, too. Sad to hear that happened. Keep fighting the good fight!

Maximilian Sulzer's picture

I think it's because of the nature of social media that people use it as a kind of ego polishing. Geo-Tags show how cool they are visiting exotic locations and will help get more views on their pictures.

Ultimately, what I see are people hiding behind the guise of good intentions. The same people who say that they are worried about the environment will write a thought piece on geotags but won't vote or call the people in power for environmental protections and resources, or use their platforms to rally people into voting and supporting the environment. They won't hound on their local governments to curb the blatant money-making tourism ventures or expect them to answer for allowing foreign companies to build and expand these ventures for foreign markets. Or how governments will allow companies to destroy beautiful locations with agriculture, fracking, development, deforestation, etc. Also, how many of these people go off the beaten path to get a new, unique shot but demand others not follow in their footsteps? On another note, if people don't live up to behavioral expectations, assuming the worst of them as if they are unwashed masses helps no one. Why not use your platforms to educate others? Why not say, hey, I know you feel the pressure to take amazing trips and collect photos to try to stand out to people you know and all the strangers of the world, but you need to respect where you are and not put dimming your insecurities first? Saying that the damage comes from people knowing about a place because of geotagging doesn't consider that without them or some general awareness of where to go, people who show up to a general location will wander in places they shouldn't. As for people needing to put in the work themselves, why lead photography workshops then? Or does anyone who photographs a place have to be a richer person who has the time and money to scope things out for days and days? There is a barrier when you don't share, and that's to poorer people who want to make the best use of their time and hard-earned money somewhere beautiful. Or, by preventing people from knowing where something is that they would ultimately like to see for themselves denies people the opportunity to grow and love things the way you do and respect things the way you do. Let's be real, in keeping a location secret, you have something that someone else doesn't. And that, I think, is ultimately what the fuss about geotagging is: access and exclusivity. If something is really that fragile, don't share it at all.

Tim Behuniak's picture

As a commenter above put, I will simply copy and paste to address your comment:

"ARGH. I don't understand why people don't understand this.

Let me break it down for you very simply, folks:

Nobody's stopping you from going anywhere. That's what actual laws, fences, permit fees. etc. are for.

Social media is not a barrier, nor does it owe you anything. So it isn't at all "elitist" for someone to withold the location of a beautiful landscape, or anything else.

This "secret-keeper" is merely leaving in place the SAME barrier for entry that they themselves had to overcome.

If anything, that's the definition of equality and fairness, NOT elitism or exclusivity.

So, get that silver spoon out of your mouth, and stop begging for a handout. It makes you sound entitled, and smells a lot like victimism.

Go do the work to find cool places on your own. Most are easy enough to find. And when you do find them, practice Leave No Trace, and only share the location with those you can personally trust to do the same."

I think that generalizing about people who stand for this opinion and don't do anything about it politically is hurting your argument, as well. Since I'm the author of this article, I feel I should say that I do vote for the environment and encourage others to do so, too. As well as encourage others to treat the land responsibly when going.

That comment does nothing to convince me and reeks of a dismissive attitude. Doesn't really address my argument at all. Do you want a conversation or not?

I'm glad you vote and encourage others to respect the world around them. But the majority of successful nature photographer vague-gram about the place they're at and do nothing more to help anyone understand what they're looking at, why it matters, and how to protect it. Your IG captions do the same. Maybe the people with platforms others engage with need to reconsider what they're saying to their audiences if they really want to protect places.

Tim Behuniak's picture

I agree! I definitely want a conversation. I think that more people could do more to encourage constructive and proper LNT practices along with their photos on social media, which is something I mentioned in the first article....

Simon Patterson's picture

Tim that comment you quoted is ridiculous. Many of us understand the argument perfectly well, and simply disagree with it, for the reasons stated in our comments.

So the opening accusation that those who disagree with your view "don't understand this" is condescending claptrap. The rest continues in the same vein, and may help you feel better in your frustration with being disagreed with, but it does little positive to promote your case.

The main thing it communicates is that you don't want to listen or engage with dissenting views. Is that what you're after?

Andrew Morse's picture

While I agree with the perspective here and the need for change, I wonder if this approach is trying to "hold back the tide". No doubt if every prolific photographer stopped geotagging their images, people would still come, albeit somewhat fewer people. In time, the numbers would continue to increase as locations continue to gain traction and popular familiarity, just more slowly. Frankly, even if this campaign was successful, I think we would need additional action to find success.

Maybe the real issue here is education? Most people don't seem to recognize the impact they have or the risks they take. Maybe there is some real need to educate visitors on their impact - no doubt easier said than done.

Tim Behuniak's picture

I agree. I think both education and refraining from sharing exact locations is the ultimate double-whammy regarding the issue.

I posted response to the author’s original article with the perspective that geotagging on the spectrum of causes of environmental damage was a negligible contribution and that we should focus on other factors such as human consumption of fossil fuels and wasteful consumerism. USA Today just issued a research publication indicating that in the past century 77% of land excluding Antarctica has been affected by human encroachment. My suggestion was photographers stay local so that they travel less which saves fuel and develops a sense of stewardship. Equally don’t buy into the photography industry obsolescence model to remain relevant. Most photographers were inspired by pictures that were taken on caveman equipment. I hope these thoughts raise conversation and awareness. Geotagging is the least of our concerns.

Tim Behuniak's picture

Interesting insight, thanks for the comment. I think that geotagging should be part of the concern regarding the bigger picture.

user-146450's picture

Kent. Thats what i decided to do. These iconic places warrant excellent photographic skills and they r mostly a days drive away. There r many wonderful opportunities nearby to strengthen my skills in technique, location and using sun. Moon direction, timing skills.

Nick Rains's picture

She heard about a place people were smilin' ... Seeking a place to stand or a place ... And they called it paradise ... You call someplace paradise, kiss it goodbye ...
Eagles - The Last Resort

Maximilian Sulzer's picture

There are several interesting aspects in that video.

1.) The correlation between geo tagging and visitor increase is not really researched. They have one person saying he "believes" it's the reason and some graphs. What they do not talk about at all is the general increase in tourism caused by easier access to travel resources (ridiculously cheap flights), increasing wealth in parts of the world which leads to more tourists that might not share environmental ethics.

2.) I did not see many, photographers there (in terms of nature photographers/enthusiasts). Mostly holiday smartphone snapshots and while the conclusion is the same, the approach to reach those people is completely different. They don't care/don' know about some nature photographers ethic code. They need to be educated on site about their impact on nature. It will also be very hard to forbid those people to tag the location of their holiday location.

3.) Those tourist groups i mentioned above often don't plan these trips themselves. They are planned by tour agencies and given to them as a ready package. So also here the approach has to be different.
This is not to sound racist but based on actual experience in central Europe. Some of those tourists (especially Asian groups), are completely unaware of where exactly they actually are. They are just dragged along by the tour.

What I'm trying to say is, that the topic might be oversimplified by telling photographers not to geo tag. It is certainly a good and noble approach, but it is not gonna solve the problem as it is rooted in various different sources (my opinion, not based on scientific research).

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